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he Shaolin Temple
(嵩山少林) is the birthplace of the Martial Arts and Zen approach to Buddhism. The original Shaolin temple is located in Mount Song - the central mountain of the "five mountains" of China, near the city of Zhengzhou, Hunan Province. Mount Song is further divided into two mountains: the Taishi and the Shaoshi. The name "Shaolin" was inspired by the lush forest of the Shaoshi Mountain. Another story suggests that the temple was built on a piece of land that had recently been ravaged by fire, because the builders planted many new trees. The temple was thus named Shaolin ("Shao" meaning "young" or "new", and "Lin" meaning "forest"). This monastery played a prominent role in Chinese history. For many periods, it was considerd to be an imperial temple where emperors of the ruling dynasty would ascend to pray on behalf of the people. However, its fame also brought with it many hardships. During periods of unrest, the temple often become a focus for the imperial wraith and retribution. The temple had been destroyed many times only to be rebuilt one again.
Historically, Shaolin monks included some of the best generals, ministers, poets, philosophers, and various famous people. Thus, in Chinese history, the Shaolin Temple was both a focal point and an education center for some of China's elite. It truly represents an important Chinese cultural landmark. The history of the Shaolin temple is long and controversial, but it is most important to acknowledge its impact on the Chinese population and the Martial Arts. The main time periods in the history of Shaolin are:
Northern Wei, 495 AD

According to the 少林寺志 <Shaolin Historical Records>, the Shaolin Temple was built in the 19th year of the reign of Emperor Xiaowen (北魏孝文帝,Taihe) of Northern Wei in 495 AD for the eminent Indian monk, Bada (跋陀 Batuo, Moha, Pao Jaco) and his two Chinese disciples (Weiguang, Weineng). Bada was recognized as a Buddhist scholar in the Hinayana tradition-not as a martial artist. Any reference to the martial abilities of Bada, his students or the Shaolin temple at that time is conjecture at best. The Shaolin tradition recognized their contribution - the inscription 'Saint from the West' (西方圣人) is written on the signboard hung above the Thousand Buddha Hall in the Shaolin Temple.

Bodhidharma (DA MO), 527 A.D

Bodhidharma (DA MO) 达摩 is acknowledged as the First Patriarch of Chinese Zen Buddhism and is credited with providing the foundations for the Shaolin martial arts. Although his existence can always be questioned, the following information is generally accepted as historical fact. He was born to a Royal Family in Southern India around the year 440 CE. He studied under Prajnatara, the 27th Patriarch of Indian Buddhism. His teacher gave him the name Bodhidharma, past Mind Transmission on to him, and finally made him the 28th Patriarch. Prajnatara instructed him to transmit Dharma to China, and Bodhidharma traveled east to Guangzhou (Kwang Chou), Southern China, in 528 AD. He was initially honoured and welcomed by the Chinese government and obtained an audience with Emperor Wu Di 梁武帝 of the Liang dynasty. The emperor did not understand the teachings of Bodhidharma and did not retain his services.

Bodhidharma continued to travel north, crossed the Yangtzu River, and eventually arrived at the Shao Lin Temple. During his life he had very few disciples, only three of which have made it into the history books. Bodhidharma transmitted the patriarchy of his lineage to Hui-k'o. Soon afterwards, Bodhidharma passed into Nirvana. He passed away at 洛阳龙门 Longmen, Luoyang (still in Henan) in 536 AD and was buried in Shon Er Shan (Bear Ear Mountain). A stupa was built for him in Pao Lin Temple. Later, the Tang dynasty Emperor, Dai Dzong, bestowed on Bodhidharma the name Yuen Che Grand Zen Master, and renamed his stupa Kong Kwan (Empty Visualization).

Many stories and legend have been told concerning the time that he spent at the Shaolin Temple:

  • He entered the cave beneath the Wuru peak and sat before the cave wall for nine years. When the feat of cultivation, accomplished by facing the wall, was completed, his image incredibly appeared on the wall, hence the famous "wall-facing rock" which can still be seen today.

  • When, during mediation he fell asleep, he was so angry with himself that he cut off his eyelids and flung them to the ground, where they became tea plants.

  • He saw that many of the monks at the Shaolin temple were sick and weak and therefore could not perform their mediation. He introduced a set of exercises to improve their body and cultivate the spirit. Those sets of exercises are similar to the postures found in Yoga. They were recorded in two books: the Shi Sui Ching and the Yin Gin Ching.

  • After his nine-year mediation, he introduced a new form of Buddhism - now known as Zen Buddhism, which appeals specifically to the Chinese mind.

  • A few years after his death, a Chinese official reported encountering Bodhidharma in the mountains of Central Asia. Bodhidharma was reportedly carrying a staff from which hung a single sandal, and he told the official that he was on his way back to India. When this story reached his home, his fellow monks decided to open Bodhidharma's tomb. Inside there was nothing but a sandal.
Bodhidharma contributed to Chinese civilization in two different ways: the concept of Zen Buddhism changed Chinese philosophy, and the integration of mental training with physical training influenced the future of martial arts.

Chou (Zhou) Dynasty, 570 AD

The Empire was concerned about the spread of Buddhism. The government closed down the Shaolin Temple, and it remained closed for thirty years.


Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD)

By the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-618), Li Shimin, King of the Qin State, fought with the self-appointed emperor of the Zheng state, Wang Shichong. Shaolin monks, Zhi Cao, Hui Yang, Tan Zong and ten other monks took the side of Li and helped him catch the latter's nephew, Wang Renze, to force the self-appointed emperor to surrender. After Li Shimin was enthroned as the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, he rewarded his followers according to their military merits and contributions. The Temple received 40 Qing (about 600 acres). The monks also received a royal dispensation that permitted them to train in martial arts in order to protect the property. The priest martial artists in the temple were called "monk soldiers" (Seng Bing).

From 600 to 1600 AD, the martial arts grew into the most complete system of Wushu in China, through the Shao Lin Temple. Martial art practitioners from all over China came to train at the temple, and they all contributed to the rich heritage of Shaolin.


Song Dynasty(960-1278 AD)

Jueyuan (Zhue Yuen), a renowned Shaolin monk, traveled across China to study the status of martial arts. During his travels, he encountered Li Sou, a famous martial artist from Lan Zhou, Bai Yu-Feng (Li Sou's friend) and Bai's son. Jueyuan convinced the three martial artists to return and train at the Shaolin Temple. After ten years of study, Bai Yu-Feng entered the temple and took the name Qiu Yue Chan Shi. According to the book Shaolin Temple Record, Qiu Yue Chan Shi was described as an expert in bare-hand fighting and narrow-blade sword techniques. He was credited with the improvement of the 18 Buddha Hands techniques into 173 techniques. He also compiled the existing Shaolin techniques and wrote the book, The Essence of Five Fist. This book described the practice methods and applications of the Five Fist (Animal) Patterns. The five animals included: Dragon, Tiger, Snake, Panther, and Crane.


Yuan Dynasty ( AD)

In 1312 AD, Da Zhi, a Japanese monk, came to the Shaolin Temple to learn the nature of Zen. During the next 13 years, he also learned elements of the Shaolin martial arts (barehands and staff). In 1324 AD, he returned to Japan to spread the idea of the Shaolin Temple.

In 1335 A.D., Shao Yuan, another Japanese monk, came to Shaolin from Japan. During his stay, he mastered calligraphy, painting, Chan theory (i.e., known as Ren in Japan), and Shaolin martial arts. He returned to Japan in 1347 A.D. Shao Yuan is regard as a "Country Spirit" by the Japanese people.


Qing Dynasty ( 1644-1911 AD)

The Ching government banned the Shaolin Temple and the practice of martial arts, in general, because of fear of rebellion. In order to preserve them, Shaolin martial techniques spread to the layman. All martial arts training in the Shaolin Temple was carried out secretly during this time. Moreover, the Shaolin monk soldiers had dwindled in number from thousands to only a couple of hundred, all trained secretly.



In 1928, there was a battle in the area of the Shaolin Temple. The Temple was burned for the last time by Warlord Shi You-San's military. The fire lasted for more than 40 days, and all the major buildings were destroyed.

The turn of the century also led to the popularization of the Shaolin story. One of the earliest references to "DaMo" or Bodhidharma was in a widely popular novel, "The Travels of Lao Ts'an", first published in "Illustrated Fiction Magazine" between 1904-1907. Other stories followed, including: "Shaolin School Methods", in a Shanghai newspaper in 1910, and "Secrets of Shaolin Boxing" in 1919. These works of fiction contributed to some of the mystique of the art. .



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Last update: 12/13/2003